The Right Choice

Election '04

By Tuesday, many New Yorkers were exhausted by the pace of recent events. Although the largest anti-RNC protest was on Sunday, marches, direct action and events kept going on throughout the week. Seeking a break from the hectic pace on the streets, I attended the Planned Parenthood "Stand Up For Choice" concert at the Beacon Theater on Monday night – part of the Imagine Festival – which promised entertainment from Moby, Nellie McKay, comedian Lewis Black, and more. But even as I filed into the theater filled with a well-dressed audience, reports came in via text message that police had run motorcycles into protesters at a downtown rally. Two forms of dissent – genteel concert and street action – co-existed uncomfortably this evening.

Forlorn Pro-Lifers
Outside the Beacon Theater's star-studded marquee, a small group of pro-life protesters were gathered inside a police pen, holding up "Abortion is Genocide" signs. But the forlorn group was completely ignored by the media. Instead, CNBC, AP and the other reporters were gathered behind a velvet rope (which seemed more pretension than function), catching brief interviews with arriving celebs like Kathleen Turner.

I bypassed the celebrity angle and went over to the pro-life group. The group's leader, Chris Slattery, described himself as a "lifelong Republican from New York." He said, "We're outraged by the absolute khutzpah these celebrities have, coming here to New York to corrupt the Republican Party, which is the last bastion of hope for America, standing up for the unborn. This crowd has lock stock and barrel corrupted the Democrat party. But they're not content, they want the Republicans too."

Preaching to the Converted
But was the event actually going to corrupt the Republicans? Although the evening was organized by Planned Parenthood of New York and New Jersey, the event's co-sponsor was Planned Parenthood Republicans for Choice. The website for the event urges the Republican Party to "return to its traditional path of individual responsibility and personal freedom by supporting the right to choose." But after talking to several of the organizers, I was unable to locate any "representative" Republicans. When comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer asked from stage, "Any Republicans here?", there were only a handful of cheers (many more cheered when another comedian announced he was from New Jersey). Most of the artists present made no secret of their sympathies. Actor Michael McKean gleefully announced from stage, "Ann Coulter hates me." And of course, musician Moby is a personal friend and supporter of Kerry. With mostly Democratic party faithful in attendance, the evening seemed to be the sound of one hand clapping – preaching to the thoroughly converted.

Legally, many of these events have to keep a non-partisan stance, especially in light of the recent flap over 527's. But causes such as anti-war protests are automatically presumed to be shills for Democrats (even though Kerry is out of step with many of the anti-war views expressed on New York streets). The position of Republicans For Choice was attacked by Kathryn Jean Lopez, in the rightist National Review (online, Aug 30), where she charged, "NARAL Pro-choice New York has taken out ads expressing its love for pro-abortion Republicans George Pataki, Mike Bloomberg, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, and Rudy Giuliani.... Don't be fooled: The elephant on the march was the Democratic party, as it inevitably is when the abortion industry gathers." Dismissing the popular protest sign "Stand up for choice all week," she called it "Kerry-Edwards signs, held by Kerry-Edwards voters."

Comedian Lewis Black, one of the evening's performers, was surprised when I told him there were pro-life protesters outside. Ushered in through a side entrance, none of the performers had seen the small demonstration. Commenting on the political dialogue, Lewis said, "I think there's way too many people talking to themselves. We need to find people from both sides, who can express themselves, in a way that's understandable to the other side. The only place I've seen that is Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel when they come on these talk shows together. They express their points of views, and they don't scream at each other, and they disagree. So it is possible."

Genteel Upper-West-Side Event
The RNC week events often break down along lines of race, class and generation. On one side are relatively safe, staid concert events at big-ticket venues. In another part of town are grass-roots, edgy and spontaneous street concerts like those by political hip-hoppers No Surrender (who released the "Reagan's Ghost" EP during the RNC) and dub-reggae-punk band Outernational (called "the new Rage Against The Machine"). With its upper-West-Side location, and choice of Beacon Theater as venue, the Planned Parenthood event fell squarely into the staid camp. Compared with the raw energy Outernational demonstrated during their concert at the August 29th mega-protest, the musical acts at the Planned Parenthood show were stage-managed to the point of inertia – neither the stage nor the audience generated the necessary energy to make it more than a "show-and-tell" event. Tellingly, in a city with a forty percent non-white population, there were very few faces of color in either the audience or on stage.

Even Comedy Has Limits
Although the overall event lacked punch, a few bursts of energy were provided by the stand-up comedians, especially the raunchy acts of Suzanne Westenhoefer and Patrice O'Neal. Going after religion with fervor, Westenhoefer was an equal opportunity offender, clowning born-again Christians, the "Rapture," "The Passion Of Christ," Jehovah's Witnesses ("They believe only 144,000 will go to heaven, but they spend their lives going door to door fucking up their lots. If I were a Jehovah's Witness, I'd keep it on the down-low."), and Mormons ("I did gay pride in Salt Lake City. I know we got a lot of other things to worry about, but when we have time, we have to get some people and get some planes and get the queer people out of Salt Lake City. I don't think they understand they're free to go.")

Patrice O'Neal was an odd follow-up to Westenhoefer's lesbian humor, since he started with New Jersey Gov. McGreevey jokes that veered close to homophobia. But once O'Neal moved on to foreign policy, he hit his stride, delighting the audience by loudly announcing, "Foreigners care about everything, we care about nothing. We care about something for five-ten minutes. We're not foreign experts in this country. We don't care about the rest of the globe. That's why they hate us. Because we don't care.... In a few years, 9/11 is going to be some goofy holiday." As if to defy the National Review's allegation that it was a staunchly Democratic event, he even launched some barbs at Kerry, bringing the house down with his signature line: "I'm sorry, every time, John Kerry is on TV with his wife, I can't stop looking at her. I just can't stop looking at her! She owns ketchup! She owns condiments, man. Mayonnaise!"

Even raunch has its limits, and the performers drew the line at making abortion jokes. Kathleen Turner's reading of an Onion spoof headline, "Taco Bell Launches New 'Morning After' Burrito," was an off-key note, given the sensitivity of the topic, but everyone else steered clear. Commenting on this DMZ area in the abortion debate, Lewis Black told me,"When people say, what is off-limits to you for jokes – this is it, this is off-limits. It's such a hot-button issue."

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